New Haven Theology

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New Haven Theology was a late stage of the New England theology that had originated in efforts of Jonathan Edwards to defend the spiritual reality of the first Great Awakening (c. 1740). It was also a theology developed for the needs of the Second Great Awakening (c. 1795 - 1830). It thus served as a bridge between the Calvinism that dominated American Christianity in the 1700s and the more Arminian theology that came to prevail in the nineteenth century.

Timothy Dwight, grandson of Jonathan Edwards and president of Yale College from 1795 to 1817, laid the groundwork for the New Haven theology. Dwight's concern for revival led him to place more emphasis on the natural abilities of individuals to respond to the gospel than had Edwards. His efforts to provide a rational defense of Christianity led him to stress its reasonable character over the sense of wonder that had been so important for Edwards.

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Dwight's best pupil, Nathaniel William Taylor, carried the New Haven theology to its maturity. Taylor was the first professor at the new Yale Divinity School, where he came in 1822 after a successful pastorate in New Haven. Taylor regarded himself as the heir of the tradition of Jonathan Edwards, particularly as he combated the rising tide of Unitarianism in New England. His theology, however, departed from Edwards's, especially in its beliefs about human nature. Most importantly, he argued in a famous phrase that people always had a "power to the contrary" when faced with the choice for God. He also contended, as Edwards's son, Jonathan Edwards, Jr., had suggested, that human sinfulness arose from sinful acts, not from a sinful nature inherited from Adam. Everyone did in fact sin, Taylor believed, but this was not a result of God's action in predetermining human nature. More than other heirs of Edwards, Taylor also accepted the Scottish philosophy of common sense which also made much of innate human freedom and the power of individuals to shape their own destinies.

The New Haven theology was a powerful engine for revival and reform in the first half of the nineteenth century, particularly through the work of Taylor's fellow Yale graduate, Lyman Beecher. Beecher and like - minded colleagues employed the principles of the New Haven theology to promote moral reform, to establish missions and educational institutions, and to win the frontier for Christianity. The New Haven theology arose out of the distinctive Calvinism of New England, but it came to represent, with Methodists, Disciples, and some Baptists, a contribution to the generally Arminian theology which dominated American Christian thought in the nineteenth century.

Mark A Noll
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

Bibliography
S E Mead, Nathaniel William Taylor, 1786 - 1858; F H Foster, A Genetic History of the New England Theology; J Haroutunian, Piety Versus Moralism: The Passing of the New England Theology.


The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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